Stir Up Some Love: More even pay in restaurants would be strong step

  • Jeremy Werther is owner and chef at Homestead in Northampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 1/7/2021 3:55:40 PM
Modified: 1/7/2021 3:55:28 PM

Jeremy Werther is the owner and chef at Homestead in Northampton. For his Treehouse Stir Up Some Love cooking demonstration he is featuring Ricotta Dumpling Cacio e Pepe.

Jesse Hassinger: Restaurants have a tradition of giving back to the community via fundraisers, why was it important to work with Treehouse in the midst of COVID?

Jeremy Werther: Giving back to the community is unprecedently important. It’s almost more important to establish those connections right now because people aren’t going out as they used to, and for good reason, but that is still equating to loss of business for the hospitality industry. Without our community restaurants don’t exist. We need that extra word-of-mouth that working with an organization like Treehouse is able to provide to stay open.

JH: In the past few years, revelations about behind-the-scenes issues in restaurants have been exposed (improper work environments, a reliance on tipping to make up for below minimum wage pay, slim profit margins, to name a few). What would be a significant change that you would like to see in this industry?

JW: That’s a difficult question because they’re all major problems that need to be addressed, but I would say the most important one to tackle first is the tipping structure and what occurs because of the tipping structure.

There’s a separation between the front of house servers, who get tipped out but are classically paid a much lower wage and so need to rely on the guests’ tips in order to make a living wage, and the back of house kitchen crew who, on the whole, spend more hours at work from prep through service and clean-up, who are frequently paid minimum wage, but have no possibility of sharing in tips because of the Massachusetts laws.

If the structure were to become equal across the board it would remove so many levels of stereotyping, of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, it just takes the top off of so many elements because it becomes the restauranteur’s sole responsibility to take care of his or her employees.

JH: The majority of guests may not know about what it takes to run a food establishment. Is there anything that you would like to share about what we are facing, especially during COVID?

JW: I don’t know if it’s especially during COVID, but restaurants are constantly swimming upstream and there’s not a pond of calm water in sight. Part of the restaurant culture is that it inherently just doesn’t stop. We’re one of the few industries where our product is ridiculously perishable. There’s no getting it wrong because every dollar counts when you’re running a 5 or 6% profit margin — which is essentially industry standard.

If you buy steak at something reasonable like $6/pound you can’t throw any of it out; you can’t mistrim because that $6 is the difference between 4 and 5% profit. The general public don’t know these things, but we have to become more transparent so that there is this development of knowledge. Having an open kitchen is one way to begin to educate people. By opening up the space we explain and exhibit exactly what restaurants are and can share that with our guests.

It will help in the long terms because as guests start to see what happens, they’ll start to understand the work that the servers and the cooks actually do.

JH: How have you found your role as a restaurateur changing in the recent months (or years) in relationship to a greater call for equity and justice?

JW: One recurring issue is the lack of labor, especially in major cities. I actually think that there is a silver lining there. People coming in looking for jobs are more often than not young, right out of college, if that. They do not have any management experience, but are applying for kitchen manager jobs and have traditionally been hired because of need.

So often, however, places do not look from within to find management. For so long restaurants have been looking for external answers, but slowly places are realizing the talent that they have inside their own walls. These long-term cooks who have worked in restaurants for years, that understand those restaurants, are being promoted into management positions, and many of them are minorities who would have otherwise been overlooked.

Now these chefs have an opportunity to emphasize their heritage and culture rather than making basic-ass white people French food that has been the norm for decades. They are able to make really awesome dishes that represent who they are and what their culture is. Little by little … we can see serious progress and the betterment of businesses because of that.

Cooks and chefs have a lot to say about our industry: give us the platform before dinner and your food will get cold (which is why we usually don’t come out of the kitchen until after a meal). These words represent just a few moments spent with some fantastic people. To invite us into your home and get a peek into ours, subscribe to the Treehouse Stir Up Some Love campaign to hear more anecdotes and to learn a new recipe. Then, when things return to normalcy, visit these restaurants and say hello: we always appreciate a visit.

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